Jack is Back and He is Rugged: Samurai Jack Season 5 Premiere Review

Let’s get the part where I explain my relationship with Samurai Jack out of the way really quick. I was 9 when the series premiered, and but 11 by the time it was off the air. But when it was on, and for years afterwards while reruns ran in syndication, I was hooked. It helped that my dad, not a guy who is big on cartoons, also liked the show, which meant it was a special bonding thing for me and him. The excellent colors, the innovative lack of black outlines on characters, the tasteful use of music and even silence, and the themes of an honorable samurai, lost in time, on a quest to stop the greatest evil from coming into power in his own time thousands of years in the past? It has the recipe for all kinds of greatness, and it takes a man like Genndy Tartakovsky, the genius behind the Cartoon Network tentpole series that was Dexter’s Laboratory, to make it all come together.

Which is why I was so pleased when Scaramouche (voiced by voice acting hero and notable square yellow sponge, Tom Kenny), the musical robotic assassin in the season 5 premiere, called Jack’s beard “rugged” a clear reference to one of the best Dexter’s Laboratory episodes where Dexter grows a beard so he can be “rugged” like Action Hank on TV (and in real life). It’s a good line on so many levels, because it works if you’re just catching back up with Jack and the beard is just a notable departure, but it’s also great if you know Dexter’s Lab and get the small, unobtrusive but also quite funny reference. And it really helps set the tone of the series straight. Because while this Jack is darker, grittier, and edgier than he was almost 15 years ago, he’s still Jack. There is humor to be had, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Even if it doesn’t seem that way, for Jack, or for us.

We find Jack 50 years after he first arrived in the future, and he appears surprisingly not too much worse off at first. He’s got a cool bike, cool new armor, and he’s got guns and blades aplenty. But he hasn’t aged at all; he’s stuck in time. He’s having hallucinations about his parents and the people he “left behind” in the past. And perhaps most devastating of all, it’s revealed that he lost his sword. Meanwhile, a group calling themselves the “Daughters of Aku” have been raising seven girls to be assassins with the sole goal of killing Jack since their birth. Just as the episode ends, their training is complete and they are sent to find the samurai.

This premiere was pretty much all set up, interspersed around a pretty kickass fight scene between Jack, sword-less, and Scaramouche. And that’s fine, because we’re finally getting a mini-series from Jack, instead of exclusively standalone series and two-parters. There are exciting possibilities before us. What happened to Jack’s sword, and how will he retrieve it? Who are the Daughters of Aku, and are the seven girls actually created using Jack’s genetic material (the theory du jour in this writer’s eyes)? Will the one standout from the Daughters, Ashi, end up joining Jack? The possibilities are exciting, and I’m almost disappointed that the whole series wasn’t dropped at once, Netflix style. But then we wouldn’t get weeks of excitement and speculation!

The show has had to evolve in the intervening decade and a half though. The visuals and music haven’t missed a beat since 2003, even if the style has changed just a bit, especially evident in the one flashback we see of Jack losing his sword, where Jack’s jawline just isn’t the same. And while we do hear just a little bit of the Aku through a cellphone, voiced by Greg Baldwin, it’s going to be hard to handle thechange since the devastating passing of Mako. It’s also notable that part of the power of the original Samurai Jack was its ability to tell self contained but incredibly odd stories week to week. We will have to see if Jack can handle more longform storytelling, although I must admit I have every confidence in Mr. Tartakovsky and his team.

Here’s to Jack being back, and him being just as good, and hopefully better. This samurai must get back to the past, but he shouldn’t stay in our past. Thanks Genndy, see you next week.

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor and the Themes of J.R.R. Tolkien

I consider myself to be a very shallow Tolkien scholar. Yes, I’ve read the books, and I’ve perused the Silmarillion and a number of Tolkien’s letters and other works. Which, to a large portion of the world probably marks me as a deep Tolkien scholar (“You’ve read his letters?“), but to the world of experts who have taken the plunge into Tolkien’s larger body of work I am simply a n00b. But that means that I can avoid the traps that many self-described Tolkien scholars fall into, such as sticking just a bit too close to the details that Tolkien describes at length.

It’s for this reason that I was able to enjoy Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor a bit more than the other experts. They argue that Talion can’t come back from the dead, or that Celebrimbor could never be a Wraith as Tolkien describes Wraiths, or that Mordor would never have any wildlife like there is to be seen in Nurn, or some other bit of trivia that, if we’re being super honest here, doesn’t matter in the slightest. Not when we have a game that actually, surprise surprise, deals with themes that are closely tied to the themes of The Lord of the Rings!

I had inklings of it back when I played the game when it came out in 2014 and was being hailed as the Game of the Year, but it wasn’t until my most recent play-through that it really struck me just how closely the game follows the internal logic not of Tolkien’s world but of his themes. And I replayed the game just before the Middle Earth: Shadow of War announcement, which goes to show just how good the game is on its own. The Lord of the Rings is, in part, a work about Good and Evil. And if we are to distill the concepts of good and evil in Tolkien’s mythology (not an easy feat, and one I will try to not do a disservice to here), we find that the fight at the center of the War of the Ring is one of Free Will Vs. Domination.

Many of the main conflicts of the Lord of the Rings stem from the ability of the One Ring being able to dominate those who wear it and corrupt them. And how does it corrupt people? Into wanting to dominate others, impose their will on others. Boromir’s main failing is the attempt to take the Ring from Frodo by force. Gollum’s whole being has been consumed by the Ring and he will do almost anything to anyone to get it back. And to contrast with Boromir we have his brother Faramir who not only refuses the Ring, but lets Frodo continue on his journey with it, thereby not imposing his will on Frodo.

And the other main power of the One Ring was the ability it gave Sauron to dominate the other Rings that he had helped fashion. The Ring bearers of Men and Dwarves were heinously affected, turning the 9 kings of Men into the Nazgul and turning the kings of the Dwarves to even more excessive greed and lust for gold, while the Elven Rings that Celebrimbor had forged in secret were unaffected except for the awareness of Sauron’s intent that it brought to them, allowing them to remove their rings.

And this of course leads directly to Shadow of Mordor, where the wraith of Celebrimbor is revealed to have been captured and tortured by Sauron into helping complete the One Ring. Celebrimbor stole the One just as he finished and attempted to usurp Sauron’s throne and save his captured family, but of course Sauron has put too much of his essence into the One and so at the crucial moment the One returns to Sauron and Celebrimbor is cursed to wander Mordor as a wraith. Until Sauron is tired of Celebrimbor’s interference and so sacrifices Talion in an effort to draw him out. Talion is able to use the power he gains by being bound to Celebrimbor to “brand” orcs and Dominate them, so that they no longer follow the whims of Sauron but instead only follow “The Bright Lord”, also known as Celebrimbor.

This of course is where the message of the game and how it relates to the themes of Tolkien’s work get a bit muddled. Because the game play of Shadow of Mordor feels amazing. It’s incredibly fun to assassinate Orc Warchiefs from above, or to develop a rivalry with an orc that became a captain for killing you in the first place, or to defeat an endless stream of orcs while attacking one of their strongholds. Talion is fun to control and his abilities make exploring the environment of Mordor and attacking its orc army all the more relishing.

But the story of the game tells a slightly different story, where Talion, at first separated from his wife and son by being brought back to life as opposed to entering the Halls of the Dead with them, at the end of the game decides to abandon his quest to be reunited with his family and instead joins Celebrimbor’s quest for vengeance and power. It is a tragedy what happens to Celebrimbor as he is corrupted by the One Ring, and it is a tragedy what happens to Talion as he is corrupted by Celebrimbor in turn. Talion’s quest for vengeance isn’t a righteous one. It isn’t even a successful one, as we well know, since Talion and Celebrimbor can’t and won’t defeat Sauron, Frodo will by bringing the Ring all the way to Mount Doom so Gollum can fall in with it.

Video games like Shadow of Mordor are inherently a power fantasy, built on the various ways you can commit acts of violence against artificially intelligent enemies. Shadow of Mordor’s gameplay seems to be sending a different message than its story. It says violence and the domination of the orcs is awesome, and fun, but also that these things are inherently corrupt and fruitless. One interpretation is that the Nemesis system, the part of the game so lauded for its ability to create emergent stories, is a part of the way that we can rectify these two messages. Yes, the game says, killing these orcs is fun, but where does it end? The nemesis system ensures that there are always more orcs to kill, always more opponents waiting to strike you down in retaliation. Talion can’t defeat evil though violence, he can only stem the tide temporarily, or even worse bring about a worse retribution later. Dominating the orcs doesn’t work, because the orcs don’t stop being vile, and in turn Talion becomes vile for taking away their right to choose. In the DLC pack “The Bright Lord”, the orc warchiefs are terrified by the idea of becoming thralls of Celebrimbor, and beg you to kill them rather than eradicate their will and impose your own. Talion isn’t a hero, he’s an anti-hero at best. He’s what would have become of Boromir if he had taken the Ring, corrupted and just as evil as the power that he hoped to destroy.

I’m incredibly excited to see the sequel to Shadow of Mordor, Middle Earth: Shadow of War take the next logical escalation of Talion’s corruption. The way that Shadow of Mordor was able to stay true to many of the themes of Tolkien’s work was a breath of fresh air for a shallow Tolkien scholar such as myself, and I trust the team behind it to continue those themes. As Talion takes the next step on his path to becoming just yet another dark lord, creating another Ring to dominate orcs and eventually the other peoples of Middle Earth, just as Sauron does, his story will grow darker and more seductive, and I can’t wait to experience that seduction in a safe place like a game yet again.

Josh’s Top Films of 2016

I didn’t see every film I wanted to in 2016, not even half of them. This was the first of hopefully many years where I attended the Sundance Film Festival, opening me to the beauty of the festival circuit, so hopefully I still have enough breadth of knowledge of this years films to say something meaningful about the excellent crop we had this year. With that small preamble said, this is a list not of the best films of the year, but of my personal favorites.

This list is presented in no particular order, with the exception that the last one is actually my favorite film of 2016.Read More »

Warcraft movie review: Put simply, it’s fine

I’m not entirely sure how the “layman” responds to Warcraft. How does someone who has never interacted with one of the RTS games or World of Warcraft or even Hearthstone ingest this film? I personally feel like every person I know has at least had exposure to the concept of World of Warcraft and its two warring factions, the Alliance and the Horde, prominently represented by the Humans and Orcs respectively. It’s really hard to separate that viewpoint, that knowledge of the “franchise” that’s so ingrained into me and those I consider friends.

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Stardew Valley: It’s like Harvest Moon, but good

When I was still in elementary school, I went over to a friend’s house to play Harvest Moon. And not to play it like a modern streamer might, where we would create a save together and make decisions together. Nope. We just played one of our already existing saves and talked about the game. This, I can now recognize, was a ridiculous and awkward idea. A farming simulator, with an understated and unfolding personal narrative? Easily one of the worst kinds of games to play with other people. It’s a solo experience, and one that you need to take time to ponder as it happens. That’s what Harvest Moon should be: a quiet experience where you can escape into a small world with a little narrative to help you along the way.

And Stardew Valley delivers that better than any Harvest Moon game has in years. I have, as of this writing, logged nearly 70 hours in Stardew Valley. I have played for one and a half years of in game time, have been married in the game, and have completed all but two of the community center bundles. I will not lie to you, this blog post has been delayed multiple times by my desire to just play more of the game. I’m having to resist the urge now just to play through a day or two, check in on my digital wife and all of my pixel crops and animals. I would go so far as to say that I am mildly addicted to the game, and I want to examine why. Why will I devote 70 hours in a matter of weeks to a farming simulator game, when I also find games like Farmville or Truck Simulator or their ilk so uninteresting? Why did I find the Harvest Moon games so engaging that I was willing to watch a friend play his own version of it, and why am I even more attracted to Stardew Valley?

I expect a large part of it has to do with my personality. I’ve come to realize that I have a particular love for escapism in media. I want to be the superhero with the super strength and super speed, or I want to sail the ocean and live the life of a pirate, or I want to be an adventurer who slays dragons and saves worlds. And sometimes, I want to escape from all of that, and I want to escape from my busy and chaotic life, and I want to live on a farm and settle down into a nice routine. But I don’t just want a simulated farm, I want to live another life entirely. And while it may be rudimentary and awkward in some places, Stardew Valley does that. And it does it more convincingly than old Harvest Moon games did, partially because of more modern design philosophy, and partially because it seems to understand better what players desire from these games.

The villagers who you can befriend and come to understand as characters are key to this puzzle. Without them, Stardew Valley and Harvest Moon are mostly resource management games. Which can be fun on their own, but don’t offer the depth of experience that makes escaping into Stardew Valley so appealing. Each villager has their own little story that you can look into briefly as you befriend them. And each of those stories adds up, until you have the narrative of Stardew Valley and all its inhabitants. It’s not a linear narrative by any means, but it’s a kind of tone, one that allows each interaction to feel like just a drop in the well of the story.

And another key part of this interaction is the marriage option. In most Harvest Moon games you have between 3 and 6 eligible bachelors or bachelorettes who you can befriend and woo, and with whom you can have a generally deeper story than the other villagers, before finally being able to marry them, have them move onto your farm with you, and eventually have kids. Stardew Valley shows up Harvest Moon on this by having 10 eligible marriage candidates, 5 male and 5 female, that a character of any gender can marry. Not only is this good for diversity and reality, it also allows more interesting stories to be told with these characters. And here is where I am torn. One the one hand, the social options, especially the marriage ones, are far too simple. There is no nuance, no player input except for gifts given and a few dialogue options that are, for the most part, irrelevant. This has always been the weak point to me, and definitely where I think a lot of work could be put in that would make the player’s experience so much better for it. But on the other hand, I can’t help but feel like it being so simple is a strength as well. There’s a level of escapism here, in being able to form a simple relationship with a character you might have just latched onto for no particular reason. In my own Stardew Valley game, I married Abigail for instance. Not because her story appealed to me more at the outset, but because she had purple hair and because she liked chocolate cake. Eventually I really liked her story, of feeling like an outsider, and trying to be something more, but that wasn’t the reason I started giving her chocolate cakes weekly. There’s something pleasant about that simplicity that would be lost by increasing the nuance. This isn’t a Mass Effect romance, but maybe it doesn’t have to be.

Something that has a lot of nuance in Stardew Valley that is notably missing in later Harvest Moon entries is the game balance. While I’ve always been a fan of earlier entries like Friends of Mineral Town, in later entries your ability to actually play the game is seriously reduced. Punishing stamina meters, terrible pricing on items, and unforgiving mechanics have been just frequent enough to have turned many off of the series. I remember how incredibly difficult it was to deal with a pregnant cow in A Wonderful Life, or the terror of accidentally dropping an item in Magical Melody, or how it was basically impossible to plant crops in the beginning of Island of Happiness. Stardew Valley has none of these problems. The original inventory limit is a big hindrance, but a worthy one that actually eases the player into the game as opposed to alienating them. It takes a long time for your actions in game to actually become easy as your success grows, but it feels rewarding to have reached that place and almost never frustrating to get there. It also helps that there’s actually quite a bit to do, as Stardew Valley takes a hint from Harvest Moon’s cousin Rune Factory by adding a very light combat and dungeon crawling element that while very shallow provides another layer of exploration and evolving gameplay.

And Stardew Valley takes a lot of other clues from more recent gaming. The crafting system, while a bit cliche in the modern gaming landscape, feels like a good fit for the simple resource management of these games. There was already a kind of element of this with farm building like coops and barns and such, so making a smaller system for things like kegs, furnaces, fences, and fishing bait seems natural. It helps with each of Stardew Valleys various systems, like the aforementioned combat and mining, as well as the farming, foraging, and fishing that are already staples of these games.

It feels amazing to love Harvest Moon again, only now it’s called Stardew Valley. I want Stardew Valley expansions now, I love it so much. I want a sequel with basically the same mechanics but different characters. Hell, I’m so far gone that I’m probably willing to pick up Story of Seasons now that I’ve relearned to love these kinds of games. Because while my real life involves me living in bustling New York and writing blog posts, at least I can escape to my digital farm and live another “mini” life. Because hey, if I’m going to unwind, it might as well involve growing parsnips.

Sundance 2016: Day 4

So Monday was an odd day at Sundance for me. I only saw 2 movies, and was fairly sick actually with a helluva cold. But both of the movies I saw were excellent and of particular interest. Especially How to Tell You’re a Douchebag, which, full disclosure, my parents were executive producers and which I attended a test screening for last year before the film was in the festival. Anyway, let’s get into it.

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